Spark to a flame: Protests a sign of growing resentment to an unresponsive government, says ISS

Experts call on law enforcement and communities to share information as SAPS Crime Intelligence failures become glaringly obvious.

While South Africa has seen regular flare-ups in most areas in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng currently besieged by violence and looting, this time the public violence was not following “normal patterns”, according to Lizette Lancaster of the Institute for Security Studies.

The ISS has been monitoring service delivery protest hotspots through its Protest and Public Violence Monitor since 2013.

While data indicated that “potential RET strongholds” such as Alex, Denver, Katlehong, and Cleveland in Gauteng and areas such as Reservoir Hills in KZN were sites of frequent protest, the danger existed now that similar hotspots in these provinces were at risk of igniting, said Lancaster.

While calls to free former president Jacob Zuma from prison might have been the driving inspiration behind initial protests, these had begun to “morph”, she added.

“Growing inequality and absolute socio-economic despair and discontent with the government is a catalyst, as is the Covid pandemic and its devastating toll. This is growing resentment towards a non-responsive and corrupt government which is what people perceive it to be.”

Lancaster is the project manager of the ISS Crime and Justice Information and Analysis Hub and on Tuesday told Daily Maverick that one of the most pressing issues was for SAPS to begin working with Community Policing Forums, neighborhood watches, and other community organizations in order to share information and intelligence to prevent further death and anarchy.

Citizens, she warned, should also be guided by SAPS in order to prevent vigilante action which would inflame an already volatile situation. 

In some violence-ridden areas in KZN residents and community members on Monday took to protecting towns and businesses themselves. Many were armed.

SAPS and communities needed to work together in light of the clear failure of the hollowed-out SAPS Crime Intelligence to predict the ongoing violence and looting. While some arrests have since been made, these have been after the fact.

The tinderbox lit soon after former president Jacob Zuma was hastened to the Estcourt correctional facility on 8 July.

However, said Lancaster, many of the areas where unrest has flared have been plagued by persistent protests over a long period of time.

Residents here were accustomed to “persistently airing their grievances” with public protest. Areas in the Joburg CBD too that have gone up in flames “often see conflict which results in xenophobic violence and there is evidence of this again”, said Lancaster.

Protests a sign of growing resentment to an unresponsive government,

“What we are not seeing,” she added, “is that areas where we would have expected flare-ups, like the Free State and Mpumalanga, are not moving towards showing this type of support for public violence”.

What one could draw from this, she said, was that “although there might be incitement by supporters of the former president and his allies, you need another ingredient and this is absolute socio-economic despair and discontent”.

Looters, she added, were not always organised and protests contained a multitude of motives.

“There is always the criminal element. In some crowds, you are able to identify the instigators but then in the ensuing frenzy others might find themselves doing things they would never contemplate doing normally.”

What South Africans had witnessed, including live footage on national television of looters breaking into a blood bank during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on Monday night was sheer criminality.

“What we are seeing here are people just taking for the sake of it. There is a big difference between a gogo or someone taking food from shelves because they are hungry and people in expensive cars loading up stolen TV sets.”


a store inside of a building© Provided by Daily MaverickA looted Spar Tops liquor store in Sandy Centre, Pinetown, on July 12, 2021, in Durban, South Africa. It is reported that a considerable number of shops and businesses were looted over the weekend following a wave of violent protests after the incarceration of former South African President Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)[/caption]

There were always individuals who “break down the doors and then those who follow” she added.

A concern with regard to the consequences in the aftermath of the violence, cautioned Lancaster, was the potential opportunism of “organised crime” piggybacking on food and other shortages.

Near Nkandla, youths were already stopping vehicles on a national road and extorting money from motorists in order to pass.

The only way for SAPS to fill intelligence gaps in the security cluster at present, she said, was for station and area commanders to begin liaising with neighborhood watches, community policing fora, and other community organisations “whether in suburbs or townships.”

Social Development and Community development also needed to be drawn into plans, said Lancaster, to mitigate food shortages.

The current violence, she said, resembled that of 2015 in Tshwane.

“It begins with political contestation and then really need and despair fuels it.”

The ISS began monitoring public violence in 2013 in light of high levels of socio-economic dissatisfaction, persistent service delivery protests “and increased political contestation”.

In a 2018 paper, Lancaster noted that protests, demonstrations, strikes and political violence “can, if conditions are right, gradually turn into social unrest.”

This could take the form of peaceful, disruptive, or violent demonstrations, strikes, and acts of political or civil violence.

“Ultimately, social unrest can be viewed as an expression of collective dissatisfaction with a political system,” she wrote.

The protest was, therefore “a form of political participation. A society’s preference for the use of more conventional forms of political participation (such as democratic processes) can, over time, transform into unconventional political participation like a violent protest or political violence.”

What was considered conventional across the world not only depending on the period in time in which it took place but also on the geographic location, “and that particular society’s definition of what is socially acceptable”. 

Experts have long warned that disrupting and violent forms of protest were becoming more acceptable in South Africa.

This week has indicated that how authorities respond to this biggest challenge South Africa and the ANC have faced since democracy will either begin to address the real and unacceptable conditions that face this country’s poor and desperate or plunge us all into further chaos.

The Zuma family has already cost South Africa enough. DM